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On Twitter recently I noticed two writers in a tussle with anti-CRT activist Christopher Rufo. They claimed he was “unprincipled”, a charge he denied.
Now infamous for his unrelenting social media campaigns against the woke Left, and even a profile at the New York Times, Rufo has become a force to be reckoned with. His new stardom has disturbed many, including some liberals known for their own criticisms of the woke Left.
I don’t always agree with Rufo, but I agree with him to a degree here. Regardless of whether or not the charges of dishonesty are true, when he says that his opponents don’t understand the rules of his game, he is right.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the functions of two different classes of “discourse participants” — those who use language to think and discover truth and those who use it as a means to power.
In temperament, instinct, and preference I am powerfully predisposed to the thinker camp. And when I look at someone like Christopher Rufo, I have much of the same feelings of frustration as others like me. He is a self-proclaimed partisan with a clear political agenda: he frames his language to ease black-and-white thinking, actively stigmatizes certain groups and institutions, and harnesses the rage and fear of the resulting mob towards his goals.
This all sounds very negative — and indeed, in many ways it undeniably is. But I have been actively engaged in activism for much of the last decade — living amongst the Romans so to speak. I don’t pretend to be incredibly accomplished, but I’ve studied the space closely.
Compared to other thinkers — Rufo might be fairly accused of being dishonest. Compared to other activists, however, Rufo may be unusually honest.
It took me some time to accept the dichotomy myself, and especially, the realities of what it might mean for my own abilities to be a highly successful activist.
The activist game, to sum in one sentence, is about results. The goal of a “good” activist is to achieve the ends as quickly as possible — as ethically as this might allow. Her morality is rooted in the goodness of the ends she works towards, indisputably noble means to attain them are not required.
The thinker game is about truth. The goal is to uncover reality as it is - to achieve a true map of the real world (and hopefully, to be the first to do it). Reflecting reality accurately requires honesty — with oneself and with others — and a strict adherence to principled conduct. Although all fields have some degree of competition, knowledge-building is inherently not a zero-sum game. Truth builds upon itself.
The activist, meanwhile, lives in a world of scarcity — limited time, limited funds, limited public attention. To her, not winning is the same as losing: every minute in which her goals are not achieved is a minute in which a harm has been achieved. There is a cost to delay.
Meanwhile, from the thinker’s perspective, the only activism that doesn't look like dishonorable demagoguery is, in practice, ineffective activism.
Years ago I was asked on a podcast whether it was possible to be effective and intellectually honest in the activist space.
I said no.
There are many reasons why this is, but they can be boiled down to the unfortunate reality that we do not, as a population, “think” as we should. The best ideas do not always win — quite frequently, they lose.
Daniel Dennett summed it up more precisely in Consciousness Explained. Whether or not a “meme replicates successfully is strictly independent of its epistemological virtue; it might spread in spite of its perniciousness, or go extinct in spite of its virtue.”
(As an aside, I will add that I believe one of the most popular rationales for free speech — that the “marketplace of ideas” will eventually and necessarily lead to the emergence of true and worthy ideas — is weak for precisely this reason. While truth is certainly a powerful advantage for any particular meme, in the messy business of human affairs a meme needs many more advantages to survive much less dominate.
Ensuring free speech is ensuring a fighting chance for truth — the possibility of a course correction when the tides of public affairs are more favorable. In other words, free speech cannot guarantee that the best ideas will win, lack of free speech, however, might be a guarantee that they never will).
So the work of the activist is, in essence, the work of optimizing an idea for propagation and adoption — of turning the tides in its favor. As a mind is either convinced or it isn’t, she must compete to be more persuasive than her opponents. It is a zero sum game.
Therefore, she utilizes certain tactics to get ahead. Here is a short list of a few important ones I’ve noticed.
First, the rhetoric that 1) spreads easily and 2) moves people to action is not the most nuanced, careful distillation, in fact, it is sure to be the opposite. It must be simple, clear, direct - “light”. Every layer of complexity, every additional ounce of nuance, makes the idea “heavier” — slowing its spread. Some ideas have an inherent advantage here, as they might be easier to collapse into a digestible form.
The best ideas are not just easy to propagate, they are self-propagating. That is to say, they motivate their believers to spread them to others. An idea that strikes fear and urgency into the hearts of others, for example, has such an advantage. If one believes that climate change is real, imminent, and deadly — then they will be motivated to spread this idea to others, so that we can collectively put an end to it. Downplaying the threat, meanwhile, increases one’s sense of security — making one complacent and less likely to work to persuade others. It goes without saying that if one’s idea isn’t naturally urgent or catastrophic, then it helps to massage the truth to make it appear so.
One should not underestimate the power of a story. Stories hijack our thought-processes astonishingly well — they are the absolute best tool we have of conveying information in a form that will remain with the receiver. Stories are a fantastic builder of empathy, which, despite its veneration as a virtue, is also inherently an us vs. them emotion. It always helps to have a clear and sympathetic victim, but the star of a good story is usually a vivid, practically satanic enemy. If you relay a story well enough, even normally discerning and skeptical people will not stop to think “hey, this sounds a little too simplistic”. Their sense of empathy will motivate them to see things in your favor.
Effective activists and movements must constantly attempt to capture public attention. Rarely, attention will land in your lap. Perhaps a filmmaker decides to focus on your issue in their next documentary, or a major news event throws your issue into the spotlight. But such opportunities do not come along often, and a good activist learns to create them. Perhaps a well-placed lawsuit? Maybe a campaign to run for office? Or a theatrical stunt that is bound to bring press to your door? If one is serious about activism, one must be willing to trade in personal dignity for awareness and support.
While many activists are clear about what they want you to think, the effective are also clear about what they want you to do next. All that attention and anger is pointless, if it is not wielded to some end. I think this final point separates the high-quality, highly-effective activists from those who merely have an intuitive feel for how to garner attention. Compare, for example, the strategic thoroughness of the Civil Rights era activists, who carefully and thoughtfully chose a woman like Rosa Parks in a planned act of protest to the unmanaged chaos of current-day Black Lives Matter activists. Despite the worthiness of their cause, one must concede that they have squandered the vigor they were able to inspire, with few policy gains to show for it.
Does this sound like a list that optimizes for “rational, honest, principled” discourse?
The famed sociologist Max Weber called it the tension between those who act only in strict accordance with principle and followers of an ethic of “responsibility”, who must “give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action”.
Weber did not believe that those who adopt the former are fit to participate in political affairs as their logic “cannot stand up under the ethical irrationality of the world”.
Reality, describes Weber, often forces “morally dangerous” action to end immorality. It is not the case that “from good comes only good, and from evil only evil follows”. “Not only the whole course of world history, but every frank examination of everyday experience points to the very opposite…. Any one who fails to see this is, indeed, a political infant.”
That might be too harsh of a judgment, in my view. Rather than some kind of naivete or ignorance, it might be a simple case of crossed incentives. Thinkers might have trouble digesting the harsh requirements of power because it leads to the dispiriting realization that reasonable discourse (their bread and butter) is not often what moves most people.
But followers of the opposing consequentialist ethic must accept the potential costs of dabbling with “diabolical forces”. “No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones — and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications.”
The ideal political actor, in Weber’s view, is one who can face these ethical paradoxes squarely and unflinchingly, and accept responsibility for the resulting unintended evils. More tellingly, he must also face “what may become of himself”: he must be willing to accept the possibility of his own corruption.
This might sound as a screed against the activist — it is not. Nor do I hold any grudges against the thinkers.
I extend mistrust, however, to those who claim to be able to meet the demands of both, without tension or inefficacy. This includes journalists and scholars who make an activist agenda plain, and even entire fields in academia that are founded on advancing certain worldviews.
One of the two roles will necessarily be dominated by the other — its principles corrupted or its efforts undermined. There are no exceptions to this rule no matter how well-meaning the actors. But many are too naive (or too arrogant) to recognize how little their intentions matter, and how easily their work can be distorted.
And of course — all this is making two big assumptions that can’t possibly be true (not with human beings anyways) — that the thinkers are motivated purely by their search for truth and the activists by the service of a worthy cause.
It is easy to see how both the tactics of the activists and the power they may achieve can be used for selfish ends.
But what about the thinkers?
Many years ago, I was asked to take part in a… well, a nude protest against “islamofascist patriarchy”. Our bodies would be covered in painted words and symbols — presumably very heretical ones. And although I appreciated the value of such a statement (breasts are guaranteed to capture audience attention), I wouldn’t have accepted had my life depended on it.
I told myself the reason was that this stunt would convince no one, that the real point of activism was to rationally persuade (and besides, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the patriarchy was unperturbed, even happy, to be exposed to female nudity). And maybe I had a point. But if I am going to be honest, I was unwilling to do it even if success was guaranteed. I was unwilling to do it because my privacy was precious to me, and besides, it felt crass and undignified.
How many other times had a similar thought-process motivated my judgment? How many times had I neglected some effective tactic because I refused to sacrifice something far more precious than time or money — my dignity?
And isn’t this, too, a form of selfishness?
I remember once speaking to a friend (who happens to be a celebrated writer) about his distaste towards the activist class. For him, it went beyond honesty and principle — it was also a matter of style. “Vulgar”, I believe, was the word he used to describe us.
And vulgarity is antithetical to the demands of prestige (or at least, the wrong kind of vulgarity is — not the deliberate, libertine transgression of high-minded provocateurs but the dull, sincere kind that is ignorant of its own tastelessness).
The nobility of the “search for truth” provides cover for a more base desire: the desire for status among peers, and an unwillingness to sacrifice it for any cause.
So we are left with, in the end, more uncertainty than we started with. When is an activist past the point of redemption — when does she become a mere propagandist? When does she begin to do more harm than good?
And when does high-minded intellectualism become, in itself, an immoral, self-serving passivity to evil?
I have a bit more to say about these matters, but not much in the way of easy answers, I’m afraid. And this essay is too long as it is, so I’ll leave you here.
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On the Rufo-Singal thing: I agree with the broad point your making and I plan to bring it up to Jesse on his callin at some point. Three Caveats:
1) I think Jesse Singal is constitutionally incapable of understanding the point you're making because he's a member of the 'Thinker' class who is almost uniquely genuine and principled in his commitment to ideas and therefore constantly frustrated by the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of his peers. People like him have an important role in our society and he fills it well but this isn't his niche.
2) Although your points about the successes of Rufo's activism and his refreshing honesty about it are generally correct, I think it should be mentioned that Rufo appears to me to be an obvious case of high-functioning narcissistic personality disorder and shows all the signs of riding a narcissistic high at the moment. I'd wager the odds of a spectacular collapse in the near future are good and when the fall comes it may very well take a lot of the success he's had with it.
3) Predictable caveat that although Rufo and I share a few enemies he's a partisan republican and, I suspect, a christian theocrat whose medium and long-term goals are pretty incompatible with mine and, I suspect, yours.
When it comes to the broader point about activism I had the thought recently that modern activism reminds me a lot of 16th-17th century european nobility. Basically the nobility of this era owed its position to the military successes of their medieval ancestors who had lived in a much more chaotic world than them as a result of this pedigree to be a young man of this class was to be raised to believe martial virtue was paramount and that what made you better than other people was your military honor. This predisposition of the ruling class likely led to many unnecessary wars (this was the era in which war was the 'sport of kings'). I think a similar thing is happening to our elite youth with regard to political activism. Activism is held up as the moral idea to strive towards, universities have told the most privileged members of Gen Y and Z that they are the generation that was promised and that their calling is to go forth and activize to make the world better. Having predetermined that this is their mission in life, people go out in search of a cause.
Thanks for a great essay! Do you think Jonathan Haidt's suggestion that academic institutions explicitly define whether their mission is one of dispassionate investigation (traditional university) versus activism (more of a think tank) would help navigate these issues? My only concern is I suspect the effectiveness of the activist is partly dependent on their ability to "masquerade" as a thinker.